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Living in Japan

A practical guide to the way of life in Japan

For expats living in Japan, the daily hustle and bustle may be overwhelming. But living in Japan is also exciting, considering the vibrant metropolises and breathtaking countryside. InterNations GO! gives you tips on housing, healthcare, education, and more. We help you manage expat life in Japan!



Life in Japan

Certain aspects of living in Japan will probably be familiar to many expatriates before they even get there. Youth culture in other East Asian nations, Europe, and the US has been picking up trends from Japan for years.

Adult expats, on the other hand, might rather read up on the traditions, arts, and festivals associated with Japan. Their view of the country is characterized by their interest in ritual and culture, in things like no, kabuki and bunraku theater, or the matsuri, local shrine and temple holidays.

One of the Safest Places in the World

First of all, it may be reassuring to know that Japan is a very safe place. According to the Global Peace Index 2016, living there means living in one of the ten safest countries in the world. Actually, it is has one of the lowest murder rates among all nations, and violent crime is indeed rare.

However, you should not assume that Japan does not involve any risks at all. Although violent crimes and hate crimes happen very rarely, they do happen nonetheless. Crime victims, especially survivors of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, have complained about less than sensitive treatment by police officers.

If Something Goes Wrong

Most foreigners who report a crime in Japan file charges of petty theft or vandalism. In Greater Tokyo’s nightlife areas, especially Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro, drink spiking, bar brawls, and fraudulent credit card charges are not uncommon, so be careful when celebrating in Japan’s major cities.

The national emergency numbers are 119 (fire / ambulance) and 110 (crime / accident).

Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Earthquakes are very common here, and most expats may have witnessed one of these seismic shocks. Most of these earthquakes are comparatively harmless and Japan operates an early warning system, broadcasting information to news media and cell phone users if a large tremor is detected.

The general advice is to hide under a table if you feel the ground start to shake, in order to protect yourself from any objects which might fall during the quake. It is also advisable to have an emergency kit at hand and to leave the building as soon as possible after you have turned off the gas. The Japanese National Tourism Organization has published a guideline “If You Experience an Earthquake” with advice regarding quakes and tsunamis.

Earthquakes in Japan rarely present a severe danger, but in March 2011 Japan was hit by a particularly strong tremor resulting in a tsunami which hit the east coast very hard. The tsunami led to the devastation of many homes and the loss of nearly 16,000 lives. Moreover, a nuclear plant in the prefecture of Fukushima was heavily damaged. After numerous reactor failures, the government declared the region around the power plant a prohibited zone. Due to high radiation levels, neither locals nor expats and tourists may enter this area.

This natural disaster also had an effect on the country’s economy. Please refer to our article on moving to Japan and contact your nearest Japanese Embassy or Consulate for further information.

Getting Registered in Japan

The first obstacle to a smooth move usually involves the municipal bureaucracy. Every foreign national who wants to settle in Japan for more than three months has to register as a resident alien. The procedure might seem a bit intimidating, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. But don’t worry! Obtaining a so-called Resident Card (zairyu kaad) is actually not that difficult.

Starting in July 2012, the new Resident Card replaced the old Alien Registration Card (gaikokujin touroku shoumeisho). Foreign residents who stay in Japan for more than three months are now registered in the same system as Japanese citizens.

If you come to Japan on a visa for a mid-term or long-term stay, you will be handed your Resident Card at the airport. If you don’t enter the country through one of the big international airports, you will get a stamp in your passport and later receive the card in the mail. In addition to receiving the Resident Card, you will need to register your address and complete your residence record at a local government office within 14 days of your arrival in Japan.

The local government office may be called town hall, city administration, ward office, or something similar. Most residence offices in major cities like Tokyo-Yokohama or the Kansai Region have weekly English-language consultation hours to help foreigners with the paperwork.

Be sure to carry your passport and your card with you all the time. This is legally required for every foreign national living in Japan.

With regards to the different types of visas and work permits existing in Japan, please have a look at our article Working in Japan.

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The Japanese Housing Market

Finding Your New Home

Unless your company provides you with accommodation or enlists a realtor’s services on your behalf, you will have to find your new place in Japan on your own. The best way to do so is by contacting a real estate agent (fudousan-ya) or a relocation service and by asking for recommendations in expat circles.

Two general tips for flat hunting in Japan:

  • There are no multiple listings for rentals in Japan. To find a flat online or via classified newspaper ads is uncommon. Thus, if you get in touch with a real estate agent, you will get access to their own offers only. If you would like to have a wider selection of rental accommodation to choose from, you should contact other realtors as well.
  • When looking at a flat or entering into a rental agreement, the importance of Japanese language skills should not be underestimated. Especially when it comes to negotiating a contract, you should bring along someone who can translate for you.

Japanese Apartments

Most expats living in Japan rent rather than buy housing. Temporary accommodation in the form of furnished or serviced apartments is not widespread. However, rentals of this sort can be found increasingly in metropolitan districts with a high expatriate population, especially in Tokyo.

Japanese housing tends to be smaller than what you might be used to. However, Western-style apartments designed for foreign residents are bigger than the accommodation of many Japanese families. When you read an ad for an apartment, be aware that the size of a room may still be measured in the number of tatami floor-mats (90x 180 cm) it contains.

Also remember that Japanese flats are often insufficiently insulated. Buying fluffy blankets and electrical heaters for winter or a big fan in summer might come in handy.

Rental Agreements

When you have found the place of your dreams and have reached an understanding with the landlord, you usually need to bring the following documents for signing the rental agreement:

  • your Resident Card
  • a proof of income from your employer
  • a rentai houshounin or joint surety (with either a guarantor company or a local government office acting as your guarantor)
  • a personal seal (jitsuin) officially registered at the local government office

Moreover, do make sure that you have a certified English translation of the rental contract, so you know exactly what it involves.

Paying the Rent

In Japan, a month’s rent usually includes the rental fee (yachin) itself, a maintenance charge (kanri-hi), and a building management charge (kyoueki-hi). Electricity costs may be included as well, but this is not necessarily a given.

Also, be aware that Japanese flats are frequently rented as unfurnished and in Japan, unfurnished means unfurnished! Some major items such as air conditioning or cooking appliances may not be included in the rental price of the apartment, and whilst the landlord should provide light fittings, there is no requirement for the flat to come with light bulbs in place. These extra costs and investments are worth checking out before you sign a contract.

You must apply for utilities such as electricity, gas, and water at local commercial companies (gas and electricity) or at the local government office (water) as soon as you move in.

The fees involved in a rental agreement can amount to several months’ rent, even up to five or six months. This sum consists of:

  • usually two months’ rent in advance
  • security deposit (shikikin)
  • key money (reikin), a non-refundable (!) gratuity paid to your landlord 
  • agent’s fee (chūkai tesū-ryo)
  • insurance premium for furnishings (songai hoken-ryo)

So make sure you have enough money in your bank account. Once you have moved into a new flat and changed your address, don’t forget to report this to your local government office to update your Resident Card. 

Education and Healthcare in Japan

Childcare Options for Expats

Many expatriates with kids look for housing that is relatively close to the nearest school, kindergarten, or nursery. While there are lots of day care options and schools in Japan, the language barrier may be a problem.

Japanese parents with preschool kids can have their children looked after by a babysitting agency. A local childcare center (hoikuen) or a nanny service taking care of infants and toddlers at home (affectionately called hoiku mama) is another valid option.

However, public childcare facilities tend to be Japanese-only. Therefore, expat parents often fall back on private day care services, bilingual nannies recommended by other expats, and the many independent kindergartens and preschools in the Tokyo-Yokohama region. The latter have several language options, especially for English-speaking children.

Sending Your Kids to a Japanese School

The language barrier is also the main reason why most expat children do not attend a Japanese school. Since the lack of Japanese skills may lead to difficulties and isolation most expats prefer sending their kids to a private international school. These also have the distinct advantage that they may include preschools, day care services or after-school facilities for younger kids under the same roof. Unfortunately, they are often rather expensive.

International Schools

In the Greater Tokyo Area, there are international schools catering to the US American, British, Canadian, Chinese, French, German, Indian, and Korean communities. Some of them also offer the International Baccalaureate. Please refer to our article on living in Tokyo for more information.

The international schools in the Kansai Region (Kyōto – Kōbe – Ôsaka) are mostly English-language institutions. In the Nagoya-Aichi area, there are also some international schools with English as their main language of instruction.

Here are some links to selected international schools in Japan:

Public Healthcare

The quality standards of medical care in Japan are very high. Moreover, the country has a public healthcare plan for all Japanese nationals, as well as for resident non-citizens and long-term visitors.  Individuals have to enroll in one of three coverage options, depending on their type of employment and age.

Coverage is provided by the Social Health Insurance (large companies), or the National Health Insurance, which includes the Japanese Health Insurance Association (for those employed by small- or medium-sized companies) and the municipal-run Citizens Health Insurance (for the unemployed or self-employed). Your insurance contributions are deducted directly from your salary, or you must remember to pay the NHI tax on a regular basis.

The NHI is also available for non-Japanese residents staying in Japan for a minimum period of three months (no visitor visa or short-term visa holders).

With regards to clinics and hospital costs both SHI and NHI patients are required to pay 30% of the total cost. However, that percentage is reduced to 20% for children under three receiving treatment.

Private Health Insurance

If you have private medical insurance, you may have to pay on the spot and file a reimbursement claim with your insurance company later. Some healthcare providers, however, do have direct billing services with some hospitals.

Various medical treatments are not included with the SHI or NHI at all, for example plenty of prenatal care, deliveries and pregnancy terminations, voluntary vaccinations, orthodontics, health check-up exams, etc. Therefore, many expats take out an additional medical insurance from a private provider during their expat assignment.

What to Do if You Get Sick

While medical standards are indeed high, the language barrier is again a considerable problem. When going to see a doctor or visiting a clinic for primary care or a hospital for more serious illnesses, you should therefore not only bring your health insurance card, but also ask an interpreter to accompany you.

If you would like to avoid that hassle, ask your nearest embassy or consulate (or the PTA members at your kid’s international school) for recommendations of bilingual medical staff or check out the information on “Guide for When You’re Feeling Ill” provided by the Japan National Tourism Organization

In the Greater Tokyo Area, you can also call the Tokyo Metropolitan Health and Medical Information Center for general information on medical services and referrals (+81 (0)3 52858181) from 09:00 to 20:00. Under the number +81 (0)3 52858185, the center offers an emergency translation service for medical purposes, too.

Nonetheless, it is a good idea to always carry some Japanese-language emergency information or your medical history with you.

Do you want to relocate? If you have never moved abroad, the process will be overwhelming, and if you have, you know the burden that lies ahead. Whatever stage you are at, InterNations GO! can help you with a comprehensive range of relocation services, such as home finding, school search, visa solutions, and even pet relocation. Our expert expat team is ready to get your relocation going, so why not jump-start your move abroad and contact us today? Best to start early!

Update on: December 06, 2018
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